My Teachers

I have spent significant time recently talking to two Zulu women, Zanele and Precious.  Although lacking much formal education, they are wise and have many things to teach anyone who will listen.

If you recall, Zanele worked for the family in the house we were renting, and now she works for us on Wednesdays.  She and I have lunch together and often spend extra time visiting after she finishes her work.   This week our conversation focused on the upcoming election (see Brian’s post for more info and a link to a great overview article).  Zanele remembers vividly the election in 1994 when Mandela was elected.  During that time, apartheid was ending and black groups, the ANC and IFP,  were fighting for power in the country.  Zanele’s family lived right in the middle of what was essentially a Civil War.  Every night members of these groups would go through neighborhoods killing anyone from the opposing party – women and children included.    Every day Zanele’s family would eat an early supper, and then she would take her one year old daughter, mother, brother and sister out of the house to hide for the night.  They slept in bushes, abandoned buildings, or anywhere else they could.  Before they left, they would dig a hole to bury anything of value.  This went on for months, and the memories of this “hell” haunts her as she thinks about another election.  We have invited her and the family to spend election night with us, and longer if there is violence.

Zanele with Rebekah's "Monkey Punk"

Zanele with Rebekah's "Monkey Punk"

Precious is 27 years old.  She grew up in a township on the South Coast.  She has a daughter Phumla who is almost 11, and they live in the converted single car garage attached to the house we are now renting.  The owners of this house (Jason and Faye) also used to live on the South Coast, and Precious started working for them when she was 17.

Precious’ Mom abandoned her when she was small, so she lived with her father in a small shack that had no electricity or running water.  She said they lived on one meal a day, usually Mealie Meal (like grits).  She said there is rampant promiscuity, and when she was young none of her peers understood how people got pregnant or HIV.  After having Phumla at age 16, she tried to continue school but instead had to find a job to support her baby.  As a result, she never got her Matric (diploma).  Instead she was fortunate enough to meet Faye and become their maid and an assistant teacher in Faye’s classroom.

Precious, Phumla, and their bird Joy.  We bought paint to fix her rusty cage.  Little things mean a lot here.

Precious, Phumla, and their bird Joy. We bought paint to fix her rusty cage. Little things mean a lot here.

When Faye and Jason moved here they brought Precious and Phumla with them.  This is apparently quite unusual; usually they would bring only Precious and leave Phumla with relatives.  Precious has told me several horrible stories of families who have been split up so that the Mom can work.   The lady who works next door to us gets one day off a month to go home and see her daughter, but the rest of the time she is the nanny, maid, and cook, and all for R800 ($80) per month!   Why does she put up with that?  No options.  There is a minimum wage law here which is R100 per day (still only $10), however as Precious pointed out, if you complain or report the employer you will have no job and be risking your child’s survival.

Now that Faye is living in Madagascar, Precious works for another family in the neighborhood.  They have a daughter with Spina bifida, so Precious takes her to school and cares for her all day in addition to being their maid.  She was embarrassed to tell me what she is paid, but finally admitted it is R70 ($7) a day.  If Faye was not letting them stay rent free in this small room, Precious would not be able to make ends meet.

Precious said she struggles with bitterness sometimes, but tries to focus on the ways she has been helped.  Faye helped Phumla get into one of the better government schools and paid for many of the initial fees.  Even the public schools here have tuition and uniforms.  You must apply to the school you want to attend and admission can be denied if you have insufficient funds.   The best schools have high fees, and the township schools that have no books, computers or trained teachers have lower fees.

Thankfully Phumla is in one of the better “white” schools so she speaks English well and is on track to get her matric.  With an unemployment rate of nearly 40%  you need every advantage you can get.  Zanele’s youngest daughter Aphile is supposed to start kindergarten (grade R) next year, but the school they like is too expensive, approximately $60 per month plus transport and uniform fees.

I often feel overwhelmed here.  The problems are so big that you don’t know where to begin.  In some ways this seems like an excuse though, one that many white South Africans have used with us.  However, a very doable $60 per month might change a girl’s life completely, and also help her family.  So, we are going to talk to Zanele and look into school sponsorship.  And for Precious, Jason and Faye are considering emigrating to the US, leaving Precious and Phumla with no place to live and $7/day.  We are working to help her get back in the classroom possibly as a teacher for Bonginkosi Preschool.   It seems like an awesome fit!

My best days are the ones when we help someone in need.  People living in their own comfortable world are missing out.

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3 Responses to “My Teachers”


  1. 1 Kylie April 19, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I will be praying how we can help Precious and/or Zanele. How would that work? I don’t know how you’re going to adjust back to life here! What we take for granted is ridiculous.
    Izzy was just trying to write to you also. She typed a whole bunch of G’s. Not sure how to translate that, except maybe she can’t wait to meet you!
    We miss you and love you!

  2. 2 Jennifer Wright April 19, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Hi Kristin,

    We will continue to pray for Brian’s foot. Carrie has been working on another e-mail for Rebekah. We loved the bird pictures since we have 2 birds of our own, Precious and Sunshine. Rebekah has played with them before.

    I found the pictures of the meat Brian was eating very interesting. It reminded me of when we were in the jungles of Ecuador and we ate absolutely every part of the wild pigs. Not a piece went untouched. I tried not to think about it. 🙂

    I am sure you and your family will have some culture shock when you return to the states. We take so much for granted. I know lots of people at home here have lost their jobs, yet in reality most of still have so much. I have not lost my teaching job, but many teachers have been laid off or transfered into positions they don’t want as people retire. I know our youth group at church sponsor’s several needy families. Would Covenant Pres. be willing to sponsor families you know from your time in South Africa? I know instead of b’day parties I’ve had my children collect money or supplies for different agencies. That might be an idea for you all as well.

    I miss our conversations dearly. You are being a wonderful witness. I am sure at times it is frustrating b/c there aren’t easy answers or fixes.

    Blessings! Jennifer


  1. 1 Adventures with Precious and Phumla « South African Tea Time Trackback on May 4, 2009 at 11:35 pm

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